My second-grade daughter’s class recently wrote and read aloud their “autobiographies.” It was an opportunity for them not only to capture some of the highlights from their young lives, but also to forecast their plans for the future. Unsurprising was the number of girls who wanted to be fashion designers and of boys who wanted to be soccer stars. More striking was that almost every boy in the class described how he would eventually get married and have a family.
What prompted so many boys to mention this? It perhaps seems surprising that having a weekly “Friday night movie night” would be as important a goal as winning the Stanley Cup, as one boy announced he wants. But for this group, that was no surprise at all. All of these children come from homes where marriage—and siblings—is seen as a good thing, even as a foundation for a happy life. The room was packed with caring and attentive parents. A family that makes them feel “loved and safe,” as one little boy put it, is (thankfully) the norm for this group of students.
In recent months, there has been a crescendo of anti-male rhetoric that is deeply worrisome. From the hysteria over a “rape culture” on college campuses, to the #YesAllWomen social media campaign that took off after the horrific Elliott Rodgers shooting spree, to the more recent uproar over “street harassment,” the narrative is that men are perpetual abusers of women. They badger, sexually assault, and sometimes even kill.
Expectations Become the Norm
Looking at my three-year old son, I wonder what will happen if he hears this narrative enough. Will he and his peers expect misogyny and violence against women to, in fact, be the norm for boys and men? If people expect boys and men not to be fathers and providers, but instead predators and abusers, will that soon actually become the norm?
Political psychologists are particularly interested in the question of normative social behavior—or behaving in the “right” way, especially in terms of how it influences voting. In an off-year election, for instance, a campaign doesn’t tell a voter they’re expecting “low voter turnout” so it needs people to turn out and vote. If they did that, no one would show up. If no one else is, why should I bother? Instead they talk about how people in your neighborhood are turning out to vote. Some groups go even further, asking voters how they would feel if they publicized their voting record to neighbors. In effect, they rely on social pressure and make voting a “normative” social behavior to boost turnout. It has a sizeable impact on political participation.
Similarly, social psychology research has considered how normative social behavior might influence people to be more environmentally conscious about issues like recycling. Researchers have discovered that people don’t want to be an outcast—they want to fit in—so they “will conform to what the others are doing” because it’s “socially acceptable.” Motivating people to follow through with recycling can be improved via billboards or flyers that read, “Your neighbors are already recycling. Are you?” Simply seeing neighbors bring their blue bins to the curb each week creates the impression that this is the social norm, and in time does become customary behavior.
Men Live Up to Others’ Expectations
But when it comes to our attitudes toward boys and men in America, this normative social behavior is just the problem. If boys regularly hear about how college men are predators, or that men walking on the street harass women, there is real reason to believe they will begin to think this is the way they’re supposed to behave. Videos intended to draw our attention to street harassment or violence against women are less likely to make men reconsider how they treat women and strive to be more respectful; instead, they are more likely to reinforce the idea that misogyny is just the way it is.
Certainly there are men who prey on vulnerable women. But at a time when gender roles have evolved, women are equal under the law, and crime rates are way down, abuse of women is usually the exception, not the rule. If we want to create a stronger society. one in which men and women have healthier and happier relationships, perhaps we should start by stopping the anti-men rhetoric. It’s time to change the perception of normal social behavior by recognizing all the good men out there: fathers who work hard to provide for their families and help with housework, young men who call a girl up for a date, men who don’t pressure a girl to have sex, boys who behave well and don’t disrupt class.
Let’s spend less time making everyone aware of how bad some men are, and a lot more time talking about how good a lot of men are. If we create expectations about the positive impact men can (and do) have on society, we might just see more men fulfilling those roles.